To earn a spot in the Coney Island Polar Bear Club, one needs to do more than demonstrate a willingness to charge into the icy waters of the Atlantic. Out of the dozens of swimmers who try to join every year, the club generally admits around five. Membership currently hovers around 170 people, in part for insurance reasons, and even those selected through an annual lottery must complete 12 swims and pass a vote of existing members.
In the late 1980s, soon after he first joined the Polar Bears, Dennis Thomas would show up on Sunday afternoons in the winter to see only a handful of other swimmers, most of whom he thought of as “the old weird guys.” The club, founded in 1903 and the oldest winter bathing organization in the U.S., looked like it was dying out. “I never thought we’d be turning people away,” says Thomas, who is now 66 and the club’s president. He is one of a group of veterans who, for the past several decades, have been showing up to wade, swim, or plunge into the freezing ocean. Maggie Farley, 73, joined in 2001 after watching TV coverage of the public Polar Plunge held on New Year’s Day. According to Farley, the longtime bathers share a bond formed back in the days when they had to change in a trailer that otherwise functioned as a bathroom. (Members now use the New York Aquarium’s education hall, which opens onto the boardwalk.)
“I have been told that members consider this group their second family, and that’s fascinating, because we’ve never done anything to develop that consciously,” Thomas says. Still, he admits it can be bonding to share in such an extreme experience. On one recent 28-degree Sunday, he led some 50 members in jumping jacks before heading into the water. “It’s so different from anything else we do day by day,” he says. “It takes you to a different place.” Naum Barash, who has been swimming at Coney Island for 30 years, puts it more simply: “You feel like a newborn.”
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